Three recent incidents have highlighted how invaluable onboard recorders can be.
During a recent agricultural operation, a helicopter experienced a partial engine failure. It was destroyed in the subsequent impact with the ground, but fortunately the pilot suffered only minor injuries.
In the operator’s investigation, the onboard recorder validated the pilot’s actions and was able to quickly confirm that nothing he’d done had caused the crash.
“When you’re a pilot in an accident,” says the operator, “you can start doubting yourself and what happened.
“But after looking at the footage, we could reassure the pilot that in the six to seven seconds between the engine failure and hitting the paddock, everything he did was spot on.”
“Immediately black and white”
Although the investigation is still continuing, images of the gauges captured by the video recorder proved extremely useful, although a definitive cause for the engine power loss has not yet been absolutely determined.
The operator says their entire fleet has had cockpit video recorders installed since the Department of Conservation and Fire and Emergency NZ mandated in September 2021 that their personnel would no longer fly in aircraft without them.
“It was a huge cost,” says the operator, “but it was worth it. It saved us time, resources, and money in our internal investigation, and that of the CAA.
“The engine was destroyed, so that would have slowed the investigation, and without the video recorder, we could only go off what the pilot said had happened.”
The operator says the recorders are “worth their weight in gold”.
“This was a very different experience from other incidents we’ve had over the years where there were no cameras.
“It’s been hard in the past, because we’ve had to rely on the pilot’s word against what the investigators think might have happened, and it can become a grey area.
“This way it was immediately black and white.”
Proving the pilot had done everything correctly
Another organisation has found video recorders help them in unexpected ways.
“We installed video recorders because we were doing a lot of work for DOC and FENZ.
“It was a bit of an initial outlay, but we staggered the cost over time across our fleet.”
After a component failure caused the crash of a LongRanger helicopter during an aerial spraying operation, video recorders proved to the organisation that the pilot had done everything correctly.
“The pilot did everything right, his training came into effect. There was no panic, he was calm. He didn’t even swear!
“After the aircraft came to a stop at the bottom of the hill, he switched the fuel off, and radioed his ground crew.
“He handled the situation perfectly.”
Another investigation by the same organisation discovered the same benefit of having onboard recorders.
“After a pilot flipped the wrong switch and inadvertently dropped a sling load in a river, we could see by the footage that he radioed the lead pilot to let him know what happened, then came back to the loading site to collect his ground crew, who he then flew back to retrieve the load from the river.
“This was exactly what we needed him to do.”
The organisation says if their pilots haven’t been doing things by the book, it’s regarded as an opportunity to develop, not a disciplinary situation.
“It would be whole-company training if we found something that wasn’t ideal.”
The organisation also finds video recorders useful when pilots report an issue to the engineers.
“Our engineers have gone into the footage, just to have a look at the gauges, if the pilots are reporting something ‘a bit funny’ to them.
“It’s not like we look at it every day or every check when they come in, but if the footage is needed, it’s there.”
Loss of tail rotor effectiveness?
Early in 2023, a Bell JetRanger was being flown by a (current, approved, and rated) private pilot, when the aircraft did two rapid right rotations during a flat, downwind approach.
Shamus Howard is the CEO and chief pilot of the operator of the aircraft, Aviation Training, operating under Parts 135 and 141.
“Unknown to us at first, someone external had caught the incident on video,” says Shamus.
“Everyone who saw the video quite reasonably assumed the helicopter had experienced LTE – loss of tail rotor effectiveness.
“They assumed this because, particularly with the earlier JetRangers, the tail rotor needs to be applied early.
“Yaw on landings is best controlled, where possible, with gentle power management, as opposed to being heavy on the pedal.
“The pilot landed safely and immediately called me. He said he’d stuffed up, misjudging the wind. But as it spun, he’d remembered me verbally bashing him constantly in training, ‘lower to live’. It worked immediately.”
Shamus also initially believed the yaw was due to LTE, based on the pilot’s recall and the external video.
“But then we viewed the cockpit footage. It was overtorque. We could clearly see the pilot was simply late getting in left pedal, then, when it didn’t react, he freaked a bit and applied heavy right pedal, which of course exaggerated the yaw. But he lowered the collective lever, applied left pedal and fixed it.
“No hard landing, no damage. He dropped his passenger off, and flew home to debrief us.”
Shamus says the overtorque would likely not have been identified by the pilot, because of the low all-up weight of the aircraft and the low density altitude.
“But the footage showed an overtorque of 123 percent. This is only fractionally over the limit of overtorque requiring just a visual inspection. Nevertheless it was over that limit, and we did have to do a full inspection and overhaul of various components.
“Some people reading about this might say it’s a case against cockpit recorders. But the footage allowed us to accurately identify the issue, and appropriately debrief and discuss. We all learned a lesson, the pilot was provided with appropriate remedial training, and he’s now back enjoying the skies.
“I would rather spend the money we spent and have a safe outcome, than have the money and not know the true cause of the yaw.
“We’ve also now got the best ‘Jetty’ on the planet!”